David Keith Williamson once described himself as “bourgeois . . . the product of a middle-class environment.” However, the world he now knows as an internationally acclaimed playwright and screenwriter has taken him far afield from his provincial background. Born in 1942, Williamson spent his early years in a Melbourne suburb and his adolescence in a country town where his father worked in a bank. Williamson graduated from Monash University, Melbourne, with a degree in mechanical engineering. After a year at the General Motors plant, he started teaching in the engineering department of Melbourne’s Swinburne College of Technology.
Even as he was pursuing a scientific education, however, he had devoted time and energy to writing and producing college revues. At that point he found the idea of becoming a writer appealing, but his “bourgeois” side kept him in the safe field of engineering. While lecturing at the technical college, he also studied psychology at the University of Melbourne and eventually began teaching the subject at Swinburne. He continued to write, and in 1968 he saw his first full-length play on stage; this work, The Indecent Exposure of Anthony East, has not been published.
In 1970, The Coming of Stork was produced in Melbourne. In 1971 two more plays, The Removalists and Don’s Party, were produced in Melbourne and later in London. The Removalists, an absurdist drama concerned with gratuitous violence, remains one of Williamson’s most durable works.
The enthusiastic reception of these plays set Williamson on his way to becoming Australia’s premier dramatist, one who would help change the course of the Australian theater. Long dependent on world (mainly British and American) drama, Australians generally ignored plays by their own writers. Such is no longer the case, and Williamson played an important role in this theatrical revolution.
Williamson and his first wife, Carol Cranby, were divorced in 1972. Two years later he married Kristin Green, a journalist, and they moved from Melbourne to Sydney, the more sophisticated and internationally oriented of the two cities. Overcoming the temptation of many successful Australian writers to migrate to New York or London, Williamson remained in Australia, where he continues to be active in numerous organizations that fund and promote the arts. A modest, unassuming man, he carries his success lightly and epitomizes the professional writer entirely devoted to his craft. The popularity of his work, both in Australia and abroad, has engendered criticism from some of his fellow playwrights, who have accused him of selling out to mainstream audiences and turning away from the alternative theater that served him so well at the beginning of his career.
Whatever the case, Williamson’s plays speak boldly to Australians, in particular to the urban middle class, which makes up the largest part of Australia’s inhabitants. Each play resonates with “Australianness”: the language drawn from the vernacular, the theme focusing on a local concern, and the milieu, exact in its representation. Critics have pointed out that the plays reflect the social, cultural, and political changes in Australia during Williamson’s career. Yet a drama like The Club, about behind-the-scenes maneuvering in a Melbourne professional sports team, played successfully in London and on Broadway. A keen observer of the human condition, Williamson writes about the world he knows, primarily that of Sydney, a teeming city perched on the edge of a vast, empty continent. At the same time, however, he has caught an elusive universality in his work. Travelling North, for example, examines the circumstances of aging, hardly an exclusive Australian plight. Both as a play and as a film (the screenplay by Williamson), Travelling North, like all of his work, transcends its locale.
Williamson’s most widely known screenplay, Gallipoli, focuses on the role of Australia in World War I, when its soldiers met senseless deaths defending the indefensible. He also collaborated in adapting The Year of Living Dangerously–a novel written by fellow Australian C. J. Koch–for the screen; the film was directed by another countryman, Peter Weir. Williamson has been involved as well in television projects for both Australian and international networks. One noteworthy series, The Last Bastion, was written in collaboration with Denis Whitburn. This historical account depicts Australia’s dangerous predicament during World War II, when Great Britain deserted its colony. Born in the midst of the war in 1942, when Japanese invasion of Australia seemed likely, Williamson might well have wondered as he re-created the events what course his life would have taken had things unfolded differently. For that matter, had the self-professed “bourgeois” Williamson continued in his engineering or teaching career, both his life and the condition of the Australian theater would be far different–and far less rich.